The 2017 plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status included this explanation of Free Association:
Free Association: Puerto Rico should adopt a status outside of the Territory Clause of the Constitution of the United States that recognizes the sovereignty of the People of Puerto Rico. The Free Association would be based on a free and voluntary political association, the specific terms of which shall be agreed upon between the United States and Puerto Rico as sovereign nations. Such agreement would provide the scope of the jurisdictional powers that the People of Puerto Rico agree to confer to the United States and retain all other jurisdictional powers and authorities. Under this option the American citizenship would be subject to negotiation with the United States Government.
In an effort to understand what Free Association would look like, we can examine Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) or the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), three nations that have Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the United States since 1986 (FSM and RMI) or 1994 (Palau).
Each Compact has been renegotiated once and will be up for renewal in 2023 or 2024.
A 2016 Mother Jones article takes on the COFAs, calling them “obscure 30-year-old treat[ies] [that have] landed thousands of Micronesians in poverty and homelessness in Hawaii.”
As the article explains, Under the terms of COFAs, the United States retained military control of a wide area of the Pacific and the use of sites for missile tests and other defense functions. In exchange, the COFA nations, also called the Freely Associated States (FAS), received protection by America’s armed forces and the right to live and work in the United States without a visa.
The FAS also received some economic aid, and COFA migrants in the states qualified for assistance in federal programs such as Medicaid.
By the time Mother Jones reported on the COFA relationship in 2016, FAS migrants living in the U.S. felt that their contributions were not recognized or respected. Notably, as noncitizens, they can’t vote, and in 1996 – just 10 years after the initial COFA – COFA migrants in the U.S lost access to federal safety net programs to which they were once entitled in a landmark federal welfare reform law.
The 1996 law ended the right of most immigrants to Medicaid and other federal programs, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) stipends. Certain immigrant groups were granted an exception to this change, but the COFA population was not.
“We gave up a lot for the Compact of Free Association,” explained Jojo Peter, a native of Chuuk and co-founder of the COFA Community & Advocacy Network, based in Honolulu, as reported in Mother Jones. “Almost all of the Northern Hemisphere between Japan and Hawaii has been given to the United States exclusively for its military purpose.”
Peter continued, “And then we come here and pay taxes just like everybody else, but we don’t have access to the same thing that we pay for. So for us, it’s like we’re paying over and over again for this treatment that we expect to be fair.”
If Puerto Ricans choose to negotiate a COFA of their own, their access to U.S. citizenship will be placed in jeopardy and federal financial support can be expected to drop dramatically – both in Puerto Rico and among Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states.
There is no way of knowing before the vote what kind of COFA the new nation of Puerto Rico might be able to negotiate. However, it makes sense to look at the experience of the current COFA nations, and the lack of success Puerto Rico has had in negotiating an “enhanced commonwealth.” These historical facts provide some real-world data to balance the hopes of those who make optimistic predictions about a powerful Puerto Rico under Free Association.
Updated July 26, 2020